Recently I had the extreme pleasure of traveling to the Warner Bros. Corporate Archive to examine the long forgotten file on what could very well be Hollywood's first attempt to make a movie based on the life of Harry Houdini.
The file was discovered by archivist Steven Bingen, a fellow Houdini buff and all around good guy (as well as the author of the upcoming book, MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot). Steve encouraged me to have a look. He didn't have time to examine the file himself, but he was pretty certain it predated Paramount's 1936 Houdini The Great. Besides, this wasn't a Paramount project. This file had come from a box in the archives of the late great RKO Studios (and I have a particular fascination with RKO).
|RKO Studios at Melrose and Gower in Hollywood (now part of Paramount)
So, early on a Monday, I set off to the massive Warner Bros. Corporate Archive Research Center in Sun Valley, where Steve was waiting with an old file box from the vaults. From inside he pulled the thick file for "RKO 589" (the production number) and said it was very likely that no one had laid eyes on this in 50 years. He left me to have at it, and asked me to let him know if I found anything interesting.
The first thing I saw blew my mind.
I confess I didn't instantly recognize the name. But it didn't matter. A notation on an undated studio synopsis told me exactly what I needed to know about Oursler, and confirmed that I was holding something very special in my hands indeed. It read it full:
The leading character in this story is founded on Houdini, with whom Oursler was very well acquainted. An actual medium is the heavy. Oursler himself has participated in the unmasking of spirit mediums, and, if the story is approved, will cooperate in working out the technical detail in the exposure of the mediums and of certain of Houdini's tricks. The picture is designed as a mixture of mystery and melodrama with a topical atmosphere. Paul Muni would make an ideal Houdini.
Unfortunately, the main character in Now You See It would not be named Houdini. Possibly there were life rights concerns. Oursler would instead call his magician Harry Pinetti. The author explained: “Houdini, whose real name was Weiss, stole his name from the master magician of the French Empire, Robert-Houdin. Penetti [sic], whose real name was Mendel, stole his name from Pinetti, the glittering court magician of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.”
In his original treatment, Oursler fleshes out the character of Pinetti in some detail. Interestingly, he does so in the past tense, clearly recalling the deceased Houdini instead of introducing a living main character. Coming from a man who knew Houdini well, Oursler's description is fascinating and revealing:
Pinetti was a truly remarkable man. He was a showman whose genius for showmanship and self-advertising, for flamboyant effects that crashed the front page, exceeded Barnum and all his tribe. Pinetti was a man of keen intelligence. Without formal schooling he had educated himself. He had a mocking sense of humor and could turn any situation to his own advantage. He was a master of the deadly art of ridicule. There was a strain of cruelty in him at such times.
Physically he was a Greek god, with muscles of an athlete and the grace of a panther. He could have been a champion wrestler or boxer, runner or jumper. He was first of all a superb human animal. He did not smoke nor drink nor swear. He was devoted to his mother and loved his wife with a tender affection of a father toward a child. But he could hate with the ferocity of a python.
His interests were boundless. He had probed into aviation, languages, music; and he had an ambition for social advancement. He wanted to have a finger in every pie and believed that he was capable of reaching the top in any field. In other words, Pinetti the Great was an egomaniac, and that was the quality that made him great. If his faith in himself were ever destroyed, his soul would be blown to smithereens. When his egotism was not crossed, he was good hearted, gentle and kind.
|Fulton Oursler's original 59-page treatment for The Master
Magician (aka Now You See It) dated September 1, 1932
While performing in Kennett Square, Pinetti meets the equally destitute Antonia Scott, aka “Tommy,” in a tavern. (Oursler notes: “Here I plan to show first Houdini’s expert trick of pitching his hat at a nail and never missing, even at incredible distance.”) Pinetti gives her a job in his show, testing her loyalty by hiring men to offer her bribes if she’ll reveal his secrets. He even has her kidnapped and threatened. Tommy remains loyal throughout, and her final reward is an offer of marriage.
|"The Great Pinettis"
Aboard ship, Pinetti amazes the passengers with his feats, including an escape from an “old Chinese torture cell.” But in Europe, Pinetti and Tommy fail to find bookings and are reduced to performing in the streets. Even his escape from a Russian Siberian Transport Prison van fails to get him bookings, when Russian authorities censor news of the escape and banish him from the country. And now the young couple has a baby.
In desperation, Pinetti aggress to be chained in a box and thrown into the Seine. The escape is a sensation, and Pinetti becomes the talk of the Folies Bergeres. Then comes an offer of $5000 a week to return to New York. Pinetti agrees only if his first week’s salary is paid in gold.
|Sir Gilbert Crewe, I presume
Pinetti goes into a “profound depression” and starts attending séances in hopes of reaching his late mother. But all he finds is fraud. He also starts to perform more and more dangerous escapes, to Tommy’s increasing alarm. Finally Sir Gilbert invites Pinetti to a séance with “the greatest of all mediums,” a “dangerously beautiful” young woman named Evelyn. The séance is impressive, until Pinetti shines a flashlight on the scene and exposes Evelyn as a fraud. She begs Pinetti not to publically expose her. He refuses and drives her out of town.
Pinetti becomes the great enemy of spiritualism, offering $10,000 for any manifestation he cannot reproduce. When he learns Evelyn is now performing in Washington, D.C., he travels to the capitol to introduce an anti-spiritualist bill in Congress. He puts on a raucous demonstration at the hearings, once again exposing and humiliating Evelyn, and ending his friendship with Sir Crewe. Afterwards Evelyn plots with her boyfriend, Leighton Stark, “the complete destruction of Pinetti.”
Stark kidnaps Pinetti’s son. Evelyn then informs Tommy that the boy will be released unharmed, if she tells them Pinetti’s secrets – especially the method by which he plans to escape the path of the Mercury Limited after he’s bound to the tracks by iron bands (an upcoming stunt). Worried for her son, Tommy relents and tells them all.
|Houdini and his "Evelyn"
Mad with grief, Pinetti vows to kill Evelyn “with my own hands, slowly, painfully, pleading for mercy.” Using all his magical skills, he terrorizes her in her duplex apartment. As she swims in her rooftop pool, Pinetti pulls her underwater. Stark arrives and drains the pool, but Pinetti is gone. Pinetti then shows himself to Stark and Evelyn, “his eyes glowing with a mad light.” He tells them he’s created a “mechanical” version of himself, which is establishing an alibi 50 miles away.
As Pinetti is about to kill them both, the telephone rings. On the other end, Pinetti hears the voice of the deceased Tommy, begging him to think of their son and not commit murder. The voice from beyond snaps Pinetti back to his senses. He rushes home to find the source of the call. The doctors tell him it was the maid, Emilie, who had risen up in a “strange trance” and spoken in Tommy’s voice over the phone. Pinetti embraces his son as we FADE OUT.
Pretty wild stuff, eh? Clearly many of the episodes are taken right out of Houdini’s life, with some dramatic embellishments. Sir Gilbert Crewe is obviously Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Evelyn is clearly the infamous Margery (aka Mina Crandon). And I can’t help but think about The Automaton from The Master Mystery when Pinetti speaks of his “mechanical man.” However, Houdini's expert hat-throwing skill is news to me!
|Oursler's revised treatment
The trip to Europe was now gone. Instead, Pinetti escapes his box in San Francisco Bay. Gone too is the testing of Tommy, her suicide, and the conflict with Evelyn. In fact, the medium isn’t even in this treatment. Instead Lady Crewe gives Pinetti a séance in which she brings back his dead father. But with these missing elements also went much of story, which now ends abruptly with Pinetti coming home with his bag of gold and finding his mother dead. Oursler may have lightened the tone and cut back the scope, but this new approach did not move the project forward (it's also possible this treatment is simply unfinished).
For that, the studio would turn to a new writer, Kubec Glasmon, who penned the James Cagney hit The Public Enemy (1931). Glasmon would skillfully reconcile the two Oursler treatments and bring in even more Houdini lore. And then a third writer would attempt to resurrect the project years later, by turning Harry Pinetti into…Howard Thurston?
But we will save all that for PART II.
A very big THANK YOU to Steven Bingen for all his help in making this discovery possible. For information on the amazing Warner Bros. Corporate Archive Research Center, visit the official website.